Monday, March 20, 2023

Abrahamic Religions Reading Scripture

 Please do not let the opportunity to register for our March 25 workshop, A New Map: Navigating the Path of Scripture and Sexuality. You can find more information and register here.




As I begin today’s message, I am sitting in the parlor of the St. George House at Windsor Castle. The last two days have been quite interesting. In addition to sitting among buildings, walls, and crypts that are imbued with British royal history, Chris and I have met fascinating people as part of the Faith in Leadership program, which is housed here on the castle’s grounds. The participants are all clergy from the three Abrahamic religions, and all serve in England except for one who is from Singapore. In addition to fascinating presentations from psychologists, peacemakers, film producers, and a brigadier general, we have had many opportunities to discuss our personal experiences of being faith leaders in our cultural and religious contexts. It has been both informative and challenging. 


One particular exercise that I appreciated immensely was called Scriptural Reasoning. We read three scriptural texts, one from the Hebrew Bible, one from the New Testament, and one from the Koran. It began with a very brief overview of the context for each text, given by someone from the text’s tradition. Then we broke up into groups and spent an hour reading and discussing the texts together. It was quite structured. A Rabbi read the Hebrew text in Hebrew and a Muslim led us through the discussion of it. A Christian read the New Testament text in Greek and a Jew led the discussion. And a Muslim read the Koran text in Arabic and a Christian led the discussion. We were encouraged to keep out comments within the text itself, although each of us invariably spoke to the extra-biblical commentaries and traditions that shaped how we read the text. It was quite an experience to see, not only the different nuances in the translations that we read, but the different ways that our three faith traditions read texts. A child preparing for bar or bat mitzvah will learn to read Hebrew and many Jewish worship services are let in Hebrew. The Koran is only considered the Koran in Arabic, and a translation is considered a translation of the Koran, not the Koran itself, so scholars and religious Muslims learn Arabic. 


The Christian tradition is quite different in that regard. Pastors in the Presbyterian Church are required to study Greek and Hebrew as part of our seminary training, but, frankly, many pastors do not attend to the Greek and Hebrew texts beyond passing their ordination requirements. Even for those of us who do (full disclosure: I work often with Greek New Testament texts, but my Hebrew is practically nil anymore), we do so in a way that is different than Jews or Muslims. Greek was an imperial language, not a sacred or culturally meaningful language. I study Greek texts mostly to prevent me from simply taking the English translation into whatever direction I wish. It is a disciplinary tool of study, not some magical portal to understanding or a way of being a step closer to God. Importantly, on the Day of Pentecost, the Christian message was proclaimed in many languages. In a strange way, no particular language or culture is sacred for us, because every language and every culture can bear the sacred. Many people have tried to make Latin or certain aspects of European culture the “classic” or “standard” of Christian faithfulness, but I would protest that those efforts are unfaithful to the New Testament story. 


The relationship between faith and culture is both necessary and complex, so I cannot explore it as much as it deserves right now. But for now, let me express what an honor it has been for Chris and me to be part of this interfaith dialogue, and particularly to be able to express who we are as part of the body called “St. Mark.” We have spoken about our church, our commitments to the environment, to full and meaningful inclusion, to social justice, in ways that were different from the perception that many of our British friends have of churches in the US. So, thank you for being the kind of church that thrives from interfaith dialogue and cultivates a justice-orientation toward the world. 


As usual, but especially when abroad, I am honored to be,

Mark of St. Mark

Saturday, March 4, 2023

The Church in the World


I have some exciting news to share – at least it’s exciting for me. When I was in Belfast last year during my sabbatical, I met a gentleman named Krish Raval, who is the head of an interfaith organization in England called Faith in Leadership. Krish and I became close immediately and spent a lot of time talking about interfaith issues. The Faith in Leadership program was initiated by Prince Philip and their offices and dormitories occupy about 25 rooms in the Windsor Castle complex. I received a note from Daniel Wehrenfennig, the director of CIEL, who led the trip to Belfast, that Krish had invited Daniel and his spouse Seanne, along with Larry and Dulcie Kugelman, and Chris and me to attend the March meeting of Faith in Leadership. We will be attending as participants and as small group leaders. So, Chris and I will be going to London from March 11-18, to participate in the conference and to see London (a first for both of us!) In my absence, SueJeanne Koh will be preaching here on the weekend of March 11-12, and Jennifer McCullough will be leading the Text Study with a Monday video and the Wednesday morning discussion on March 13 and 15. 


Through participating in this meeting, I hope to become better equipped for some of the roles that I hold as the pastor of St. Mark. Particularly, I am the chair of the Faith Leaders Council for United to End Homeless (which puts me on the Leadership Council and the Executive Council of U2EH as well). I am also a new Faith Leaders representative on the Friendship Shelter board, which operates mostly in south county. Each of these roles enables me to be a voice for St. Mark and for progressive Christians in Orange County, with relations to representatives of other faiths and to some leaders within the evangelical communities. In each case, I am learning (I think I’m learning; I’m trying to learn at any rate) to work cooperatively with persons who share good will, even if we don’t share the same faith perspectives. I honestly feel that the church’s voice in public/private endeavors is a critical one, and I try to represent it the best I can. 


When I am engaged in these works of grace, I am constantly thankful and honored to represent St. Mark and I am reminded of how effectively you are as the church. I cannot tell you the number of times that I’ve seen the dawning recognition of folks who say, “Oh, I know that church.” They will mention the Pacific Chorale and Choral Arts Initiative events on our campus, or they will name someone they know from the Hoag Board, the Orange County Community Foundation, the OASIS Board, or one of our Deacon outreach partners. And I smile and say, “Yes, that person is St. Mark alright.” It is delightful. I find myself happy to be St. Mark in the world because of how you are St. Mark in the world. 


So, thank you for being a church that reaches out within our walls and beyond our walls. And thank you especially for being the church that “joins Jesus at the margins.” Our Lenten theme this year is an opportunity for all of us to reflect deeply on what it means to follow the Christ, who is ever found among those whose “backs are against the wall,” as Howard Thurman puts it so powerfully in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. I hope you are taking advantage of our text studies of Luke’s gospel, our Great Decisions discussions, and our book study with New Hope throughout this season. They are great opportunities for us to grow spiritually and to be the church that joins Jesus at the margins. If you want to join the Wednesday evening discussions of Howard Thurman’s book, please jump in. You can get information about registering here


One final thought: Sometimes it is difficult to find the words that express how we are called to be a church that follows the Christ, when so many other expressions of the church seem to be representing Christ in ways that are exclusive and, to me, disheartening. I encourage you to take advantage of the workshop that we will host here at St. Mark, along with the congregation of Christ by the Sea, on March 25. We will hear a compelling presentation by Dr. David Lull and several panelists who will demonstrate ways that we can confidently live into our Christian calling to justice and inclusion. You can register for the workshop here. And thanks to Dr. SueJeanne Koh for all of her work in coordinating our Lenten season with New Hope Presbyterian Church and our workshop. 


It is a blessing to call myself, 

Mark of St. Mar

Friday, February 24, 2023

A New Map: Navigating the Path of Scripture and Sexuality

 This weekend is the first weekend of Lent, as we follow our path of “Joining Jesus at the Margins.” You can engage in the season in many ways: We have a Text Study of the Gospel of Luke; a Book Study of Jesus and the Disinherited by Dr. Howard Thurman; and are walking this path of discipleship with our sister community, New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim. You can order a copy of Thurman’s book here and sign up for the book discussion here.

Have you ever wondered why it is that Christianity is supposed to be a love-driven way of life, but seems to be nasty and hateful when some people present it? Do you tire of always having to clarify something like, “When I say I am a Christian, I don’t mean like those people”? Do you even shy away from the word “Christian” or “church” at times, simply because you don’t want to be associated with exclusionary speech? If so, please know that you are not alone. There are books for sale entitled, They Like Jesus but Not the Church and Love Jesus, Hate Church. I haven’t read them, so this is a reference, not a referral. Just the fact that people have felt the need to write books trying to distinguish between Christ and the church – which is called to be “the body of Christ” – is disheartening. 

I suspect one reason many people have left the church through the last few decades has to do with the way the church presents the Scriptures as warrants for exclusion and bigotry. It is one thing to see how some church leaders are manipulating the Christian message to legitimize their bigotry. It becomes another thing they start citing Scripture to defend their exclusionary or demeaning stance. That is exactly how many of us were taught that Christians are supposed to act in the world – to know what the Bible calls sin and to oppose it in the name of Christ. So, if someone is taught (wrongly) to read the Scriptures as being anti-gay, the question is, “Can I be a faithful Christian if I am gay, or I am not anti-gay?” It leaves us asking if the Bible is true, or, at least how to read the Bible and not be a bigoted person as a result. 

If you have struggled with how to be open and loving while being faithful to the Scriptures; or if you know that you are following Jesus but don’t always know how to express your faith when others cite “chapter and verse,” I invite you to a workshop here at St. Mark called “A New Map: Navigating the Path of Scripture and Sexuality.” The workshop will take place Saturday, March 25, from 9:00am to 2:00pm and includes lunch. A production of our Adult Discipleship and Nurture Commission, in conjunction with Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church, our workshop’s featured presenter will be Dr. David Lull, retired New Testament professor at Yale Divinity School and Wartburg Theological Seminary, who will lead us in a deconstructive project of disclosing how the Scriptures are often misread and misused, before turning to a more constructive project of how to read the Scriptures more faithfully and lovingly. Dr. Lull’s presentations will be followed by a panel discussion from a variety of perspectives, as well as some Q&A opportunities. You can register for the workshop here or send questions here, and we will be providing more information as we get closer to the event. 

Whenever God’s people fall into using God’s name to legitimize their conventionality or prejudices, God raises up prophetic voices calling us back to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly. I genuinely feel that God has given that prophetic voice to St. Mark for many years, and continues to call us in that way. This workshop will be one way to strengthen our resolve to be a capacious and welcoming community because we are faithful to the way of God that Christ makes known through the Scriptures. 

See you in worship,

Mark of St. Mark

Monday, February 6, 2023

Lenten Plans

 Note from Mark Davis: Today I have asked SueJeanne Koh, the Director of Adult Education and Resident Theologian for both St. Mark and New Hope Presbyterian Churches, to write our Friday letter. SueJeanne has done great work in bringing the journeys of St. Mark and New Hope together, and has coordinated ongoing meetings between me and Rev. Chineta Goodjoin from New Hope. Much of our attention of late has been preparing for the season ahead, as SueJeanne’s letter will show. 

It is hard to believe, but the season of Lent is starting in a few weeks, with Ash Wednesday on the 22nd. I grew up in a church that did not pay attention to liturgical rhythms apart from Christmas and Easter, but increasingly, many of us have seen the formative value of Lent and Advent for our communities. If Advent is a season of waiting and hope, then Lent has typically offered us a time of personal reflection, abstinence from indulgence, and remorse about individual sin. 

One way to approach this liturgical season is by turning intensely inward. This year, we invite you to approach it a bit differently. Throughout Scripture, the word “repent” has different valences, referring to the emotions of regret, the conviction of sin, or a change of mind. It also describes a turning back to God, as in John the Baptist’s cry, “Repent, for the reign of heaven is near.” To say that the reign of God is near is to suggest that the matter of repentance is not only a spiritual posture, but also one that asks us to orient ourselves in the world differently – seeing God at work, and seeing the need for God among us. 

This year’s Lenten theme is “Joining Jesus at the Margins.” It is an invitation to both St. Mark and New Hope communities to cultivate this vision of repentance. This vision is both about seeing the world, and being present in it, in ways that recognize God’s solidarity with those on the margins of our society. It is to decenter ourselves by joining those people at the margins, and to see the world from those margins. We will have some familiar events–like our Ash Wednesday service and weekly text study focusing on Luke’s fourth chapter. But we will also read Scripture alongside Howard Thurman’s prophetic book, Jesus and the Disinherited. And to bring both Scripture and Thurman’s words to life in our context, we will plan a couple of site tours in Orange County using A People’s Guide to Orange County by Thuy Vo Dang, Elaine Lewinnek, and Gustavo Arellano. Finally, through the season we will ask you to share your own observations and experiences of God at work among us, through words and art.

We hope that these Lenten rhythms, both familiar and newer, will bring us closer to seeing worship and the work of justice as intertwined. And we hope that these opportunities will help reveal God’s hope and heart for our world, and open our eyes to the histories of marginalized communities among us—to use Thurman’s words, whose “backs are against the wall.” We live in a visual age—a stream of images emanates relentlessly from our smartphones, tablets, and computers, amusing us with memes as well as haunting us with images of grief, brokenness, and all-too-familiar violence. To see the world as God would have us see it, and then to be as God would have us be, is what we hope to do by joining Jesus at the margins. To cultivate this vision is spiritual, creative, and tangible work, and orients us to the God whom we worship.

SueJeanne Koh

Director of Adult Education and Resident Theologian

Friday, January 27, 2023

A Theology of Remembrance

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, set by the United Nations in 2005 on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi concentration camp complex. When Soviet troops liberated it in 1945, the emaciated survivors who had not been led off into “death marches” greeted them as liberators. In today’s essay, I want to say two things. First, it is essential to remember the Holocaust with sober realism. Second, remembering is a difficult task and something that we have to work at from many angles. 


One reason it is important to remember the Holocaust is because it was an event where actual people planned and executed a plan to systematically kill other actual people in an attempt to destroy them based on their Jewish identity. That is the definition of genocide. Someone who was 10 years old when Auschwitz was liberated would be 88 years old today, which is why it is increasingly rare to meet Holocaust survivors. But, over the years, many of us have met survivors and it is always a humbling event to hear their stories. For someone like me, born well after the liberation, meeting survivors prevented me from simply relegating the Holocaust to the past, as a moment in history, and made it a reality that had to factor into my view of people, my view of God, my views of morality, of war, and of human dignity. When photos are posted online of a group of local High School student saluting a swastika made of red plastic beer cups, when that same campus was flooded the next week with anti-Semitic posters, we cannot deny that we have failed to remember the scourge of Nazism and the Holocaust as real history, and not as something one can idealize really or comically. So, yes, it is important to remember the Holocaust, even if we had nothing personal to do with it. 


Remembering well is a task that can travel several different directions. One way to remember the Holocaust is to view it within other horrific genocidal movements in history. Last week I heard some representatives of the Acjachemen/Tongva tribes, who once inhabited much of Orange County. Colonial powers systematically decimated their people, at one point killing up to 90% of them as they sought to appropriate the land where most of us live. The city where I grew up, Hampton, VA, was settled in 1609. There was a plaque near my childhood home that showed how Hampton was the “oldest continuous living English settlement in the US.” Just ten years later, in 1619, the first African slaves were brought to the US at a harbor in Hampton called Point Comfort. Other genocidal actions carry names that are familiar to many of us from more recent history: The Genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia, “the Rape of Nanking.” In every case, it was human beings dehumanizing other human beings to eliminate whole peoples. When we view the Holocaust in this way, we have to reckon with genocide as a repeated offense in human history. The point here is not to lose sight of the particularity of the Holocaust, but to keep us from imagining that “we” or “folks like us” could never so something evil like that.


Another way to remember the Holocaust is to view it within the history of anti-Semitism, a long, complex history. Even in the New Testament, we see references to “the Jews” that were internal arguments, speaking to some real tensions between early Jewish Christians and their Jewish communities. A lot of these references were picked up and repeated outside of their original context (which was complicated in itself), and increasingly became justification for blatant anti-Semitism. Good Friday has long been a dangerous day for many Jews, as fanatical Christians unleash anger on them for “killing Jesus.” Some of Martin Luther’s comments were explicitly invoked by Nazis as justification for their crusades against Jews. Today one might hear of “Jewish Space Lasers” or the Rothschild family or White Nationalists chanting that Jews “will not replace us.” Historical memory can be a demonic and harmful thing. The Holocaust was in many ways a culmination of long-brewing anti-Semitism that was pervasive well beyond Germany’s borders. 


Finally, I feel the need to say that there is a way of thinking about the aftermath of the Holocaust, not so much about the Holocaust itself, that is important. The horror and reaction to the Holocaust was a driving force behind the establishment of Israel in 1948. However one feels about the political or theological rationale behind this act, I think it is important to consider the perspective of the Palestinians who were displaced and have been systematically maligned by this action. I find it problematic when anyone dismisses the horror of the Holocaust. What is open for conversation, in my mind, is why Palestinians have had to bear the brunt of an attempt to correct that horror. This, too, is a very complex matter and fraught with deeply held convictions on every side (and there are many). I’m sure my attempt to name it has not been adequate, but it is the best I can do. If we remember the Holocaust within the context of oppressed peoples generally, we honor the plight of Palestinians on this day as well. 


There are few memorial days that are as complex and historically challenging as today, Holocaust Memorial Day. May God help us to honor it, even with its challenges. 


Mark of St. Mark

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Imperative of the Mundane

 We are looking for a few courageous folk who are willing to assist on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings with our audio/visual work, which are necessary for our in-person worship as well as our online attendees. Some of the skills are very easy to learn and others can be learned over time. If you are willing to explore some of these roles, please contact Office Manager Sue-Ann Wichman here.


Not long ago, I was talking to a presbytery executive who seemed kind of dispirited. When I asked how she was doing, she responded that she felt that she spent too many hours every day dealing with matters that seem to have nothing to the Reign of God. She’s a person who dreams big, so I can imagine how frustrating it would be. 


Here’s my witty wisdom on the matter: So much of what it takes for the church to be the church has nothing to do with the church being the church. After Jesus and the disciples ate the last supper together, Judas went away to conspire, Jesus and the eleven others went to the Mount of Olives to pray, and we all know the drama of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, and the disciples’ abandonment. But guess what: Someone had to clean up the dishes. Seriously, someone was always cleaning up the dishes, returning the donkey, filling the wineskins, finding some firebrands for the nocturnal forays into the garden, making arrangements for overnight accommodations (for 13, most of the time!), and so on. Someone real does the work of “house elves” – those are imaginary creatures from the Harry Potter books, who do all of the mundane tasks out of sight and out of mind. In fact, there are moments in the gospels when Jesus instructs some of the disciples to go and make arrangements, reminding us that, even for Jesus, things did not just magically appear. Real life is about someone cleaning the crumbs off the counter, remembering to take the garbage to the curb, and putting more air in the tires when the weather gets cold – along with all the exciting stuff that gets into novels. 


The mundane. None of it is sexy but all of it is necessary. 


And that’s true of church life. So, the presbytery executive has to meet with a committee trying to sell some church property, and a financial secretary trying to balance a spreadsheet, and a pastor who may fill a vacancy that someone abruptly quit, and so on. In a well-oiled machine, one might imagine that all the mundane stuff is delegated to others. That’s what the Apostles did in Acts 6, when they invented the role of “deacon” out of necessity. But machines are not always well-oiled, and the vicissitudes of life continually get in the way. So, everybody – Jesus, Apostles, presbytery executives, and the rest of us – find ourselves attending to the mundane even if we struggle to see what it has to do with the Reign of God. In the end, even the mundane to do with the Reign of God


Someone stops by and brings doughnut holes to the church on Sunday mornings. That is a part of the Sunday routine that most of us never think about, but we love the genuine connections that take place when we gather on the patio and visit with one another following worship. The experience of fellowship feels like the Reign of God is present, but if that is true then stopping to get the doughnut holes is a Reign of God thing also. Someone arranges to have the choir robes cleaned on occasion. Someone makes sure that scattered hymnals are put in their proper place between Sunday and Saturday worship. If you’ve walked on it, someone swept or vacuumed it. If you drink it, someone prepared it. The mundane is everywhere and is always important. 


So, let me invite you to circle back up to the top of today’s message and ask yourself if you might be someone who can take on the task of assisting with the audio/visual portion of our worship services. Are you someone who might serve on a commission, host a “Life Together” event after Saturday worship, greet people as they enter worship, and so on? There are many mundane tasks that go into participating in the Reign of God, but there are no unimportant ones. So, give it some thought. If God is calling us to do it, then let’s do it well.


Thanks for all of you “house elves” out there. We appreciate your faithfulness,

Mark of St. Mark

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Are You Saved?

Have you ever been met with the question, “Are you saved?” Lots of Presbyterians fumble for an answer to that question, perhaps mumbling something about their participation in church, their confirmation experience, or something like that. If you’re one of those folks who can never find a satisfactory response to that question, you are in very good company. The truth is, for many Christians it is an ill-fitting question. But, of course, it is not an ill-fitting question for everyone. 

Take the Apostle Paul, for example. He had an experience on the road to Damascus that very dramatically changed the entire direction of his life. He was on that road because he had gotten papers authorizing him to find followers of Jesus and bind them and bring them back to Jerusalem to face the Sanhedrin. By the time his experience was over, he went from being a persecutor of the church to a zealous leader of the church. That is such a dramatic experience that he changed his name and had to be introduced to many Christian communities by a friendly face because they knew of his previous actions. 

Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience has often been lifted up as the norm of the Christian experience – the kind of 180-degree turnaround that is captured in the lyrics, “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” Please allow me to say that if you are someone who persecutes Christians (Paul oversaw the first Christians martyr’s death!), you do need to get saved! Do it now, man, that stuff is so wrong! But, if you are someone whose imperfections and misdeeds are a far cry from Paul’s early experience, then maybe Paul’s conversion experience is not the model you are looking for. And although we can all be rather wretched at times, perhaps “Amazing Grace” isn’t really the song that captures your own story. And I have known people for whom a 180-degree turnaround in their life was exactly what saved them from self-destruction and their way of being lost or feeling separated from God. It happens. 

But grace doesn’t happen to everyone that way and there are plenty of other biblical stories that can serve as better models for our Christian experience. Think of Timothy, to whom two letters in the New Testament are addressed. The writer says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Now, here’s someone whose faith journey looks a lot more like mine – a generational follower of Christ who inherited a sincere faith from his family. I cannot think of any period of my life – no matter how imperfect much of it has been – when I did not know God’s love and grace made known in Jesus Christ. Whatever doubts I carry, I’ve never known a time when I didn’t have some deep and abiding sense that life has divine, loving purpose. 

I have had moments in my life when I was (or, at least I hope I was) changed significantly. My upbringing and some of my worst tendencies would make it very easy for me to be incredibly judgmental of anyone who is not in a straight, monogamous marriage. It would be very easy for me to continue ignoring systemic racism and pretend that the sins of the past were just because of a few very bad or misguided people. It would be easy for me to think that anyone struggling with poverty, addictions, or a life that seems unrooted are solely responsible for their condition and simply need to be “saved.” I was well-trained in those habits of mind and while there may be some slivers of truth in them, they were parts of my identity from which I needed to be transformed if I were to have what Paul called “the mind of Christ.” So, yes, I’ve been saved – if that’s the language someone needs – many times! And I am still in need of saving. 

In Romans 12, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” There are two imperatives in that sentence, but oddly for imperatives they are both passive. To “be conformed to this world” is to be shaped by the presumptions, prejudices, and outlook that we inherit from living in a world that does not follow God’s will. To “not be conformed to this world” means to actively resist what seems to come naturally to us in our culture. And to “be transformed” – as both passive and as an imperative – means to open ourselves to God’s grace, which will give us a whole new outlook. To me, this is what “being saved” is all about. Being saved from becoming selfish, spiteful, exclusive, and all the things that come easily from our culture. And being saved to having a mindfulness about life that is shaped by the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

“Are you saved?” can be a challenging question. Perhaps our best response can be, “By grace, often.” 

Mark of St. Mark